Wilderness South of Chicago: Beauty Amid Industry

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The Calumet region surrounds Chicago and includes Lake Calumet and the Calumet river system. Here, an amazing alliance of nearly 270 organizations, which have banded together under the name Chicago Wilderness, are working towards improving green infrastructure, creating access to nature for children, devising plans for mitigating and adapting to climate change, and preserving and restoring wildlife habitat. In a full-day tour organized for the American Planning Association (APA) conference by The Field Museum, one of Chicago Wilderness’ members and one of the world’s great natural history museums, pockets of nature were uncovered amid the industrial suburbs and bleak, isolated public housing communities far south of Chicago. The tour was led by Mark Bouman, Chicago Field Director; Laurel Ross, Urban Conservation Director; Alaka Wali, curator of North American anthropology; and Doug Stotz, Senior Conservation Ecologist at The Field Museum.

Green Infrastructure in the Burbs

The first stop on the tour was Blue Island, Illinois, a “free standing industrial community” of 25,000 spread over 45 square miles, where city leaders are working with Chicago Wilderness to protect green infrastructure. There, the “stormwater management issue is huge,” said Mary Poulson, community relations director for Blue Island. Currently, the community can’t deal with the issue well, but aims to use “distributed reservoirs and green infrastructure” to handle the problem. To address the broader challenge of water management across the region, the community has joined with 33 other municipalities in the area to create the South Suburban Green Infrastructure Vision.

The town is also working on creating a “more sustainable watershed” around its Midlothian Creek, which runs through part of the community. Part of this effort is to “protect fragmented natural areas.” While they may not be impressive to look at, “they are valuable” from a stormwater management point of view. They are also valuable habitat. Stotz said this place attracts “early bird migrants.”

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To make this green infrastructure more accessible to the community, a new bicycle trail will be going in along the creek. In another part of town we saw a boat launch.

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Planning efforts were supported by workshops around geography and green infrastructure, which led to a map down to the parcel level. One result is that residential areas are now included in these plans. The city encourages homeowners to install rain barrels. To date, more than 1,000 have been installed and there’s now a waiting list. The city government is pushing for the use of native plants in favor of lawns. Connected with all this green work is an economic development planning process that was started by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) a few years ago.

Learning about Nature in a Restored Landscape

The Beaubien Woods have been set aside for environmental education purposes, not recreation, but that hasn’t stopped locals from Altgeld Gardens public housing, where President Obama got his start in community organizing, from fishing at the Little Calumet River that runs through the area. At its peak, the housing project had 10,000 people living in more than 2,000 units. Now, there are around 2,500 people in this extremely isolated community. Much of the housing seemed to be falling apart. There seemed to be few shops or services nearby. On top of the isolation and limited opportunities, there are also major odor issues caused by the nearby plants that deal with sewage. “Methane gas is a big problem here,” said Bouman.

The 135-acre Beaubien Woods, which is made up of prairie, woodland and wetland habitats, is part of Cook County’s forest district, which makes up around 11 percent of the total land area. Over the last twenty years, the site has undergone intensive ecological restoration. The site is beautiful. There’s woodlands, a river, and rolling hills in the background. Interestingly, those hills are actually covered garbage dumps, so the woods themselves form the hole in the “toxic donut,” said Bouman.

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While the river is so polluted that pamphlets are distributed outlining the dangers of eating fish caught there, Ross said that the river is actually stocked with fish by the Illinois department of natural resources so they are “relatively OK to eat given they aren’t there long.”

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Stotz said the site is really rich bird habitat. The area attracts more than 180 bird species, perhaps because there are 209 species of native plants. The local Afro Birders group uses the landscape to teach kids from Altgeld and other communities how to spot different types of birds. The Field Museum along with the Calumet Stewardship Initiative are also doing “place-based kids education” to teach locals about “where they are living and connect them to their landscape.” There are volunteer days organized for removing invasive species and cleaning and restoring the ecosystem. Each June, there’s a “family-friendly free nature festival.” Wali said “African Americans are as concerned about preserving nature as any other group of people, perhaps even more than others.”

Getting out in Front of Climate Change

Chicago has created a climate change action plan, but it’s not for nature, said Stotz, so Chicago Wilderness has done their own plan that addresses the possible impacts to local flora and fauna. They created a “biodiversity recovery plan,” which aims to restore nature in the region to make it more resilient and create a network of green and blue corridors to help species migrate.

The organizations involved have been collecting observations about what has changed. For example, the prairie burn season is now “much, much longer,” said Ross, because it’s gotten warmer. She said this opens up windows of opportunity because “there’s less snow on the ground. Things green up earlier.” Communities don’t burn prairies in the summer anyway because it just adds to the “ozone and particulate matter,” which is already high in hotter months. Prairies, just to explain, are “adapted to fire.” Native Americans burned these ecosystems to drive out wild game during hunting. Now, these landscape need to be periodically burnt to maintain their health. Burning also keeps woody invasive plants out. “These are landscapes by fire.”

The Field Museum and other Chicago Wilderness partners are also looking at “carbon storage in protected areas.” Stotz said there are a variety of projects underway to measure the carbon stored in above-ground trees, but more work is needed to measure the carbon storage value of herbaceous plants as well as carbon in soils.

One goal of the alliance is to engage the local community in climate planning and natural restoration work. Wali said they used an “asset mapping” approach, which is a methodology created by urban planners, to discover “the strength of individuals and their capacities” in the communities involved and create a climate community action toolkit local organizations can themselves use to spur action. In six communities, “we mapped the social strengths, including churches, local gardens, and other networks — the intangibles,” to see how to form bottom-up support networks for biodiversity preservation. This approach is needed because “we have to take an integrated view of nature.”

While the communities that will support these natural areas all depend on industrial work for their livelihoods, the process also showed “these people care about nature.”  Their asset mapping work has shown the group that “there are interesting local environmental practices.” People are “actively recycling” even though there are no formal recycling programs. “Junkeros, local recyclers in the latino community, tap their kinship networks to recycle materials.”

Now, the toolkit, which was actually financed with a $100,000 grant by Boeing, is being used by local organizations to tap their networks.

Restoring Nature to Health

Perhaps saving the best for last, the Field Museum scientists then took us to the Powderhorn Prairie Nature Preserve, a deeply rich landscape where prairie, woodland, and oak savannah ecosystems meet. Just a few miles from skyscraper-sized oil refineries owned by BP, there are undulating dunes and swales create a set of “niche habitats.” Bouman said this is the “most biodiverse site in Chicago.”

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A recent Bioblitz, an intensive biological survey that involves counting as many species as possible in a 24 hour period, yielded more than 250 species. “This is a rich edge area,” said Stotz. A volunteer program helped bring the area back.

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Invasive plants and shrubs were crowding out the rare native species, including Illinois’ only native cactus.

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Ross said there was an intensive “reseeding process” to restore the fragile prairie grasses. Then, they were set on fire to remove the invasive plants.

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The hydrology of the site was also restored, undoing the damage from nearby drainage projects.

The ecological restoration brought up many questions, said Ross. “Can the damage be undone? What should we restore to?” She said ecological restoration is “creative, challenging work. No one size fits all. You have to know the local areas intimately.”

Stotz said the effort was important. “These are just little patches, but there are worthwhile things here. That’s why I do this.” Nature is amazingly resilient but sometimes just needs a hand.

Image credits: Jared Green / ASLA

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